Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Best Films Of The Year 2016



















What with the growing choice of release formats - cinema, on demand, home rental and multi-region physical media, plus the proliferation of both major and smaller regional film festivals (particularly the increasing number of horror related events), it's getting increasingly difficult to keep track of what movies get released where and when during a specific calendar year. So once again, for my annual end of year countdown, instead of sticking to just confirmed UK releases I'm basically allowing any new release film (excluding re-releases or rep screenings) which I have seen in 2016. Therefore any new release films which I logged on my Letterboxd diary since January 1st 2016 are fair game. In other words, one-off festival screenings are now eligible for consideration, as are films perhaps not yet released in the UK, but are available online via the likes of U.S. itunes and similar readily accessible on demand and streaming platforms. Just for the record, according to my Letterboxd diary HERE: I watched 329 films in 2016 (17 more than 2015). Also worth noting that as ever, I've not seen anything like every new release worthy of inclusion, but I think I've caught a fair cross section of the most important and popular films of the year, and hopefully this round-up reflects that...

THE BEST FILMS OF 2016:


1) THE REVENANT
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Oscar-winning follow-up to Birdman is another directorial tour-de-force, a stunningly shot saga of survival and revenge set in the wintry wilderness of the Rocky Mountains in the pre-wild west 1820s - it’s the birth of a nation portrayed with unflinching brutality and bleakness.
Notorious for its punishing production schedule – just a couple of hours of snowbound location filming per day over a nine month period to capture and maintain the natural light Inarritu demanded his drama to play out in, rarely has the cruelty of nature and the savagery of man looked so striking or felt so unforgiving onscreen. This kicks off with a jaw-dropping action sequence where a motley crew of fur trappers are ambushed by a Native American tribe, in remarkably graphic and spectacularly choreographed scenes of slaughter and chaos which make the opening beach assault of Saving Private Ryan look like a Disney cartoon. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki tracks the action and attacks with eye-popping fluidity, his camera darting between protagonists, following arrows and axes into skin and bones, soaring through the air, diving under water, bouncing back and forth between combatants locked in life or death grapples. It’s very much a taste of what’s to come as the focus switches to the scant survivors of the battle, and in particular Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, who escapes intact only to then be horrifically savaged and ripped to shreds by a particularly pissed-off grizzly bear and subsequently buried whilst still breathing, by Tom Hardy’s merciless mercenary colleague John Fitzgerald. Barely alive, much of what follows is based around his ordeal to survive in the harsh environment he finds himself abandoned in, and make it back to base with deadly retribution driving him ever onwards with each agonising step.
The Revenant is a remarkable film, visually spellbinding, but also beautifully bleak and barbaric, it’s a film that is ice cold in terms of subject and surroundings, emotionally harsh and physically gruelling, a film of ordeal and endurance. DiCaprio finally bagging his Academy Award here, for a performance far more physical than vocal, his dialogue is sparse, and much of that is spoken in a Native American dialect, but boy oh boy does he go through the wringer in this movie, capturing the pain and darkness and misery of the material perfectly with incredible conviction and commitment. But despite the unrelentingly downbeat tone of the story, there’s also striking moments of haunting reflection and mystical poetic beauty amidst the suffering and slaughter, as Inarritu tips his director’s hat to Malick and Herzog. But ultimately The Revenant is a film that can best be summed up by how many different words and synonyms I could think of for ‘visceral’.


2) HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE


A warm, witty wilderness romp which tugs on the heart strings and tickles the funny bone. Genuinely charming, one of the 2016's most unexpected treats, boosted by a pair of terrific performances from its young lead and Sam Neill's wonderfully grouchy, reluctant guardian. After the superb double-whammy of What We Do In The Shadows and now Hunt For The Wilderpeople, I'm fascinated to see what Taika Waititi now does with the upcoming Thor threequel.
"Majestical."


3) ROOM
From a place of confinement, captivity and cruelty this soars with emotional impact. Despite its harrowing basic premise of a young woman who has been abducted, abused and imprisoned in a tiny locked room for seven years, Lenny Abrahamson’s powerful drama eschews any exploitative elements, concentrating instead on its gut-wrenching human relationship. Brie Larson is just incredible as Ma, so called because she shares her incarcerated world with her son, Jack, who was born two years into her ordeal, fathered by her captor, and who is her sole reason for survival and to carry on enduring her horrific plight. Jacob Tremblay as Jack gives one of the most astonishing, naturalistic performances from a young child actor I have ever seen, totally free from stage-school artifice or forced emotion
The poignant central mother / son bond is the very core of the film, and the dynamic chemistry between the two actors is beautifully handled and flawlessly portrayed in a story about resilience over adversity and the triumph of the human spirit and the way we, and especially children, can flourish in spite of terrible trauma and suffering. It all sounds terribly downbeat and grim and claustrophobic, but it really isn’t that kind of film at all, it’s potent and intense sure, but ultimately uplifting and celebratory. I confess I don’t really have a paternal bone in my body and I’m not overly sentimental when it comes to movies, but there were a couple of times during this I don’t mind admitting I had a genuine lump in my throat, in a sensitively handled, haunting, life-affirming film, which tied my stomach in knots and pulled my heartstrings to bits. 

4) ARRIVAL

Contact, communication and collaboration. Denis Villeneuve's fable of first contact is the sort of studied, cerebral, mature movie which feels like an an anomaly amongst Hollywood's box-office pre-occupied production line mentality. Arrival is a film devoid of huge set pieces or the usual blockbuster trappings, that's not to say it doesn't contain spectacle or impact - the opening aerial approach to the mist-shrouded spacecraft is jaw-dropping in its otherworldly wonder, but this is a film more concerned with a slow-burn reveal and intellect and insight over explosions and action. It's beautifully constructed, immaculately played - Amy Adams cementing her reputation as one of the finest actresses of her generation - profound, poignant, eerily topical, a sublime slice of spiritual science-fiction for our troubled times. A new hope, and as much as I think a Blade Runner sequel is a terrible idea, after seeing this, I'm convinced that at least it's in the safest hands possible.

5) HELL OR HIGH WATER
It may have a contemporary setting, but in every other respect Hell Or High Water very much draws from a classic Western template. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are sibling outlaws, audaciously robbing banks in impoverished, desolate frontier towns. Jeff Bridges is the gruff, world-weary, gun-slinging lawman in relentless pursuit, as their paths of destiny draw inexorably towards a seemingly inevitable terminal interception.
Set against a bleak backdrop of austere, dust bowl Texan countryside and widescreen panoramic skies, this is a tautly wound thriller which not only openly embraces classic wild west iconography, but very much harks back to the gritty realism and cold casual brutality of seventies' crime cinema - Badlands and Thunderbolt And Lightfoot spring immediately to mind. Performances across the board are flawless - Pine is a revelation as the more pragmatic, cautious crook, although his criminality proves to have a profound, possibly sympathetic, motivation. Bridges as ever is a magnetic screen presence, his surly, sarcastic veteran sheriff tracking down the brothers like a pit bull which won't release its steel-jawed grip, a gruff, obdurate ancestor of Ethan Edwards, as The Dude morphs into The Duke. And yet, as is often the case, it's Ben Foster who steals the show, as the reckless, feckless ex-con with an adrenaline junkie attitude and a hair-trigger temperament. Beautifully written by Taylor Sheridan, who also penned last year's best crime thriller Sicario, and directed with an incredibly assured hand by Scot, David Mackenzie, who previously helmed the impressively gritty British prison drama Starred Up, this is a mature, moody, magnificent movie of blood brothers, desperation and duty. 



6) SWISS ARMY MAN
You know, we often bemoan the state of modern cinema - the constant remakes and sequels and soulless multiplex number-crunching studio conveyor-belt offerings. You always hear folk lament the lack of original ideas, and innovative story lines / situations in contemporary movies. Well grumble no more, for here is a film which is not just an utterly unique one-off, but quite frankly one of strangest, most surreal, most mind-bendingly bizarre films I have ever seen! There are more bona-fide "What the actual fuck.....???" moments in the first five minutes of Swiss Army Man, than I can recall in the rest of 2016's cinematic calendar combined.
Remarkably however, for all its overt oddness and blatant idiosyncratic quirkiness, there's real charm, warmth, whimsy and wonder here. The two leads are remarkable, Daniel Radcliffe in particular as the titular multi-functioning flatulent corpse gives a truly astonishing physical performance, and further cements his growing reputation as an actor willing to take risks and career challenges as he further sheds his Harry Potter cloak. Poignant, powerful, absolutely out to lunch, and unlike anything you have ever seen before, I found this quirky bromance strangely moving and memorable as a celebration of life, played out with the lifeless.

7) THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
The evolution of the zombie film, heart and soul amongst the blood and guts. A smart, cerebral, stunning gift to genre fans. The Girl With All The Gifts is as much Day Of The Triffids as it is Day Of The Dead, beautifully balancing influences and blending genres. My favourite horror film of 2016, but also one of the best films of the year, period.

8) TRAIN TO BUSAN
Not entirely original, Horror Express covered similar ground back in the 1970s, and last year's Howl, placed another iconic screen monster (werewolves) on the rail tracks, but this stunning South Korean shocker takes one of those brilliant basic premises - zombies on a train, and milks that deceptively straightforward concept for every last drop of tension, action, spectacle and perhaps most impressively...devastating raw emotion.
The pacing is relentless, hurtling along like a runaway turbo-powered bullet train, the characterisation spot on - a motley assortment of heroes, hissable villains and disposable victims, and the action is frequently spectacular and shocking. The undead here are fast, ferocious, physically contorted - a writhing virulent mass of diseased flesh and gnashing teeth. The choreography within the confined space of various train carriages is stunningly orchestrated, as fleeting glimpses of the unfurling apocalypse raging outside lends a hellish vision of doom and destruction that betters anything in World War Z. Yet the real power with Train To Busan lies in the emotional investment we gather through its key protagonists, rarely has a horror film left me so emotionally wrecked. The climax here is unbelievably poignant, devoid of schmaltz and sentiment, just acutely affecting, a rare example of a genre film that can deliver shivers down the spine as well as a lump in the throat.

9) GREEN ROOM

Nazi punks fucked up!
Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to the terrific Blue Ruin is another film of protagonists way out of their depth in a situation spiralling out of control into escalating violence.
The basic premise is a bit of a stretch, but this absolutely pulls no punches as events go south and the brutality and bloodshed rises with barbarity every bit as hardcore as the music. Gritty, gruesome, gruelling, think Assault On Precinct 13 with punk swagger and savage attitude. 


R.I.P. Anton Yelchin.


10) MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
Director Jeff Nichol's first foray into science-fiction territory retains the indie-spirited, pastoral roots of his earlier films, but is far more ambitious and broader in scope. Essentially a chase thriller leading to an overt sci-fi climax, yet entirely character-driven, it's a mysterious, magical, nostalgic throwback to a golden age of cerebral science-fiction cinema, openly embracing influences such as Starman and Close Encounters. Otherworldly but ultimately radiating with humanity and heart. 

THE BEST OF THE REST: 

 

11) SPOTLIGHT
12) THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE
13) THE VOID
14) THE GREASY STRANGLER


15) KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
16) THE EYES OF MY MOTHER
17) THE NEON DEMON

18) 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
19) THEY CALL ME JEEG ROBOT
20) STAR TREK BEYOND
21) AMERICAN HONEY
22) EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!
23) THE JUNGLE BOOK

24) TALE OF TALES
25) SON OF SAUL
26) SUPERSONIC
27) DEMOLITION
28) BASKIN

29) HE NEVER DIED
30) THE BIG SHORT
31) EYE IN THE SKY
32) THE NICE GUYS
33) DEADPOOL

34) THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
35) BLOOD FATHER
36) NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

37) CURTAIN
38) TRASH FIRE
39) HUSH
40) HIGH-RISE
41) HAIL CAESAR!

42) POPSTAR NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING
43) UNDER THE SHADOW
44) WAR DOGS
45) VICTORIA
46) EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

47) DAVID BRENT: LIFE ON THE ROAD
48) PET
49) THE GOOD NEIGHBOUR
50) CREED


BEST HORROR FILM: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

BEST COMEDY: HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE

BEST SCIENCE-FICTION / FANTASY: ARRIVAL

BEST THRILLER: HELL OR HIGH WATER

BEST SPECIAL FX: THE JUNGLE BOOK

BEST SCREENPLAY: SPOTLIGHT

BEST DIRECTOR: ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU (THE REVENANT)

BEST ACTRESS: BRIE LARSON (ROOM)

BEST ACTOR: LEONARDO DICAPRIO (THE REVENANT)

BEST ANIMATION: KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: TRAIN TO BUSAN.

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